Mac of the future: the OS

John Siracusa
30 November, 2010
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These days, it’s easy to take Mac OS X for granted. Sure, we all love our Macs and the applications we use. But what has the operating system done for us lately? Mac OS X 10.6 (Snow Leopard) was released a year and a half ago, but most of its changes were under the hood. The last release to include significant user interface enhancements was Mac OS X 10.5 (Leopard), which is now more than three years old.

If Mac OS X has seemed neglected lately, it probably has a lot to do with iOS hogging all of Apple’s attention. Since Leopard’s release, iOS has gone through four major revisions, each bringing important new features to iPhones, iPads, and iPod touches.

At October’s “Back to the Mac” press event, Apple finally announced Mac OS X 10.7 (Lion), due to ship in mid-2011. Only a few new features were demonstrated, and then only briefly, so it’s hard to say whether Lion will be another bargain-priced release like the $39 Snow Leopard, or a feature-packed $100+ blockbuster like Leopard. But the details we did get make some things very clear.

For the next iteration of Mac OS X, Apple has taken inspiration from the defining characteristic of iOS: simplicity. Just as the Mac was originally a friendlier alternative to command-line operating systems, iOS today stands in stark contrast to Mac OS X and other powerful, but still relatively complex, desktop operating systems. Apple plans to use what it has learned from iOS to make Mac OS X more approachable and even easier to use.

The trouble with apps

Let’s start with the most basic operating system task: installing and running applications. Experienced Mac users may take this process for granted, but try explaining it to a novice. The Byzantine system of compressed files, disk images, and installer applications can be cumbersome even for expert Mac users.

You download an application. Where does it go? Once you find it, is that an installer or the app itself? Once it’s installed, do you drag it to the Dock or run it from where it is? And what do you do with the disk image after that?

Uninstalling an app is even worse. Mac OS X offers no uniform way to do it. Sometimes, dragging the application’s icon (assuming you can find it) to the trash is sufficient. But any application that uses a multistep installer probably also needs an uninstaller to really remove it.

Compare all of this to iOS, in which installing any app is as easy as tapping one button. Uninstalling an app is just as simple, and works the same for all apps. This ease of installation (along with low pricing) is why iOS users are so much more willing to purchase and install software. People who are daunted by the prospect of installing Mac applications will happily tap their way to screenfuls of apps on their iPhones and iPads.

Apple has listened to that feedback. The forthcoming Mac App Store will bring the iOS app experience to the Mac: one-click purchase-and-install, explicit visual feedback on download progress, and a clear indication of where the application will live once it’s downloaded. At the October event, Apple didn’t demonstrate a new process for uninstalling. But it’s a good bet that it, too, will be modelled on iOS.

Finding without the Finder

Mac OS X’s Dock went a long way toward simplifying the experience of launching applications on the Mac. Things take a turn for the worse once the user has to move beyond the Dock. The Finder is a big step up in complexity from the Dock’s simple row of icons. There’s also the shotgun approach offered by Spotlight, but once the user starts typing search queries, the battle for simplicity has already been lost.

iOS has taken the Dock’s approach a step further. Instead of just a single line of the most frequently used applications, iOS arrays all of its apps in a series of icon grids. Yes, there’s still a search function as a last resort, but there is nothing like the Finder in iOS.

Apple now appears to be questioning whether there should even be a Finder in Mac OS X. Lion’s Launchpad feature brings iOS’s app icon grid to the Mac, usurping the Finder’s role as the fallback tool for finding and launching applications that are not in the Dock. With Mac applications increasingly using a “library” metaphor, as pioneered by iTunes and iPhoto, the need to interact directly with files by accessing the file system is slowly disappearing.

Toward the iOS ideal

The OS also influences the design of the applications themselves, through the development tools and frameworks it offers and the example set by the OS’s bundled applications. Apple’s new directive for Mac OS X applications is that they should be more like iOS apps.

For example: iOS apps cover the entire screen. That makes sense, given the small screens of handheld devices. But it also provides a measure of focus that customers seem to like. Mac developers are now being encouraged to add full-screen modes to their applications; Apple has already done so itself in apps such as iPhoto. Future versions of Mac OS X will provide a way to switch easily between applications without leaving full-screen mode, retaining both the Mac’s multitasking advantages and iOS’s clarity of focus.

Due to the memory constraints of handheld devices, iOS only recently gained the ability to run multiple applications at once. Even so, iOS applications must still be ready to be evicted from memory at any time, and are expected to automatically restore themselves to their previous state when launched. This also means that there’s no explicit Save operation in iOS applications; work is saved automatically.

Though not subject to the same hardware limitations, Mac OS X applications should behave the same way, Apple has decided. Future versions of Mac OS X will likely include native support for automatically saving and restoring an application’s state. It’s possible that the Dock will no longer provide any visual indication that an application is running: If application state is never lost, the distinction between running and not running no longer really matters.

Eyes on the prize

There are many more traditional areas where Mac OS X will continue to develop: the transition to 64-bit will be completed, support for flash storage will improve (perhaps with the help of a new, more modern file system), and 3D performance could get some much-needed attention.

But these efforts are dwarfed by the bold new course Apple has charted for Mac OS X. From its experience with iOS, Apple believes it has discovered – or perhaps rediscovered – the secret to selling consumer technology products: simplicity. This doesn’t mean that the Mac we know and love will disappear. Rather, by stealing the most successful ideas from iOS, the Mac OS of tomorrow could slowly shed its legacy constraints while still remaining true to the power, utility, and spirit that has always defined the Mac.


7 people were compelled to have their say. We encourage you to do the same..

  1. Chris Oaten says:

    My only concern with the descriptions here is that Lion will over-simplify the user experience and in doing so remove the flexibility that *real* Mac users love. Does anyone remember OS 9′s Simple Finder? That was an exercise in simplifying the user experience but it dumbed usability beyond desirability.

    I *like* using Spotlight as an app launcher. I *like* having the flexibility to place shortcuts/launchers in one of five different places. I *like* that I can use an uninstaller such as Hazel that has preferences I can modify. I *like* that there is a Finder with which I can manage files. Finder is more than just about apps, you know. I *like even more* that I can run an alternative to Finder, Path Finder, to enjoy a superior user experience that is well within Apple’s reach to achieve but which it chooses not to pursue.

    The more I hear about Lion, the more it sounds like Apple wants to define my desktop experience. Yet that’s not why I love the Apple OS. Its strength has always been that I can tailor it to suit the way I want to work.

    If Lion moves towards removing that choice by streamlining, simplifying or full-screening its way beyond the paradigm to which I am accustomed and prefer, you can be certain Snow Leopard will be the last Mac OS I use.

  2. Mars_Fenix says:

    I’m not getting lion. Didn’t like it one bit.

  3. nom says:

    For every user that dumps Lion because, as previous commenter said, it “moves beyond the paradigm to which [he] is accustomed” there will be 5 new users upgrading from their iOS device and delighted with the ease of use and reduced cognitive load compared to Windows.

    Having said that, I haven’t seen any indication that Apple are removing the Finder in Lion (or in any other way reducing the options for power users), only that they are minimising complexity for “average” users. Which is A Good Thing.

  4. Chris Oaten says:

    @nom It’s a good thing for “average” users. But I’m not average. I’m well above average. I’m totally un-gulumping-believably non-average. So it may not necessarily be a good thing for me. Then again, changes to the interface may be so stupendously well-implemented that I’ll cream my pants when I get to use Lion. It will be interesting to see.

  5. Peter T. says:

    64-bit computing is slowly becoming the norm and replacing 32-bit. Does anyone want to guess at how long it will take before we start to see 128-bit CPUs?

  6. Damon says:

    Chris, I’m with you – I’m hoping that with Lion there will be some improvements for us non-novice users to improve our productivity and make the world’s best unix-like operating system help us work and create. If it’s just point-and-click iPhone adaptions to the Mac I will be sadly disappointed and my next upgrade will be to a Linux or BSD without a doubt.

  7. FridgeSeal says:

    I’m with Chris on this one as well. While I like the streamlining that OSX *could* benefit from as mentioned in the article-file system, 3d, flash support etc. I can help but feel that we’re slowly having our own control over the computer taken away from us. If I wanted that to happen, I’d buy an iOS device and throw my mac away.

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